HAROLD ASHBY QUARTET:
Just For You
Hey Ellington and Ben Webster fans, check out Ashbys blues-drenched, melodic tenor sax. You just know that jaw-dropping sound came from a lifetime of paying dues. In 1950, Ash moved to Chicago to become Ben Websters protégé and record with those Chess blues legends. During the sixties, he subbed more and more with the Ellington Orchestra, taking over Jimmy Hamiltons chair in 1968. Ash played and recorded with Duke until 1974. Just For You is for fans of unpretentious, melody-rich jazz that has a good beat 4-Stars according to Stereophile. Youll hear Ash fire up the swing in John Hicks piano playing. And that same fire lights up Keter Betts huge-sounding contrabass. Even Jimmy Cobbs ever-tasty snare and high hat show extra snap and sparkle. Tunes include Lotus Blossom, Sultry Serenade and The Intimacy of the Blues. (#06232)
Hal Ashby was the protege of Ben Webster, the Swing-era tenor saxophonist renowned for his 1940s tenure with Duke Ellington and numerous fine albums he made in the 50s and 60s. Websters unique, magisterial, creamy-to-barking tone was designed for ballads, but was aces on medium-to-fast swingers, too. Frog (a Webster nickname) took fellow Kansas City native Ash under his wing and ultimately introduced him to Ellington, with whom Ashby worked on and off from 1960 until Ellingtons death in 1974. (He stayed in the band led by Dukes son, Mercer Ellington; until 1975.)
Despite his Webster lineage, Ashby was never a mere copy. His sound, gorgeous like his mentors, often has a shade more edge and darkness, and he has more facility than Ben, handling fast tempos with aplomb--proved here by Stampash.
Seventy-three when this album was made last year, Ashby is still vital and commanding. the programthree lovely ballads, including the opening Reminiscing; several fine medium groovers; and a telling slow blues, Sweet Nuthinsis for fans of unpretentious, melody-rich jazz that has a good beat and isnt that complicated.
Ashby offers the poignant theme of Reminiscing with that succulent, gusts-of-breath tone. Hicks then solos economically telling his story with one series of choice notes after another. Billy Strayhorns enthralling Lotus blossom, with a deft rubato intro by Hicks, is also given a theme-only performance by Ashby.
Another Strayhorn classic, Intimacy of the Blues, reveals the leader as a hearty cooker. He doesnt play a lot of notes, often going with short phrases for maximum rhythmic impact; Ash can make a repeated single note swing like mad. High tones shake with his sure vibrato, and contrastingly low bottom notes pop right out. Tasty is a shuffle blues taken a bit faster. Again, less is more. On Forever, and Ellington-like bossa nova, Ashby essentially sings his solo with dancing, pretty notes. What else is new? Throughout, Hicks is an ideal accompanist; bassist Keter Betts and drummer Jimmy Cobb provide additional just-so support.
As weve come to expect from Pierre Sprey and Mapleshade, theres a massive soundstage, superb tonal and timbral reproduction, and outstanding sonic clarity and detail.
Tenor saxophonist Harold Ashby, best known for his work with Duke Ellington in the late 60s to mid 70s, leads a quartet here with pianist John Hicks, bassist Keter Betts, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. Ashbys heard to the best advantage on ballads and moderate tempoed tunes, displaying his full, breathy tone; hes quite reminiscent of Ben Webster. On faster selections, such as Stampash, he sounds shaky. Hes contributed some attractive originals, including Reminiscing and Just for You, to the date, though.
The laudable Hicks normally plays with more modern musicians than Ashby, but adjusts nicely and turns in some swinging, intelligent solos of his own. Betts and Cobb move things along smoothly and unobtrusively.
All Music Guide:
Former Duke Ellington band member Harold Ashby, although approaching 75 years, shows no sign of slowing down and no decrease in his sax playing prowess. Cut for Mapleshade Records, this album also reveals that Ashby is a composer of no mean accomplishment. All but three of the tunes are his, with the others belonging to Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. Ashby's distinctive rendition of Ellington's "Lotus Blossom" is an outstanding reading. Strayhorn's "The Intimacy of the Blues" swings, and Ellington's "Sultry Serenade" is played by Ashby, with his characteristic, lightly touched tone combined with a kind of frolicking flavor. The tunes penned by Ashby run the gamut of style: "Reminiscing" is a sensual ballad while "Forever" has a faint Latin beat. The title tune is an intimate piece, reminiscent of Ellington's own "Azure," and is an album highlight. On the session's coda, "Sweet Nuthins," Ashby's tenor takes on a Hodge-esque flavor, featuring his soft-played approach to this blues-tinged number.
Ashby is supported by three gifted musicians on the scene today; their efforts are consistent with the very relaxed feeling Ashby and producer Hamiet Bluiett have established for this session. No one is being pushed here, and John Hicks' piano playing is lightly touched. Keter Betts, long-time Washington, DC resident and elegant bass player supreme, combines with premiere drummer Jimmy Cobb to provide the proper rhythmic setting for both Ashby and Hicks to ply their wares. Those who prefer their jazz sophisticated and suave, not loud and raucous, will certainly be attracted to this very good album that amply demonstrates how good this music can sound when in the right hands.
The Sensible Sound:
This excellent-sounding new release from
Mapleshade is worth picking up for one incredibly beautiful
and moving cut, "Lotus Blossom" by Billy Strayhorn. What
tenor saxophonist Harold Ashby, pianist John Hicks, bassist
Keter Betts, and drummer Jimmy Cobb are able to achieve
on this tune defies my humble attempts to describe it.
Nearly half the time is taken up by a soulful bowed-bass
and piano duet of surpassing loveliness, then Ashby comes
in with his horn, and things get even better. Jazz perfection!
The clean sound captured by Mapleshade makes it all the
better. There are some other good performances on this
CD, but as I said at the outset, "Lotus Blossom" is worth
buying this CD for just by itselfthe other nice
cuts are a wonderful bonus. Ashby has a big, breathy tome
reminiscent of Ben Webster, plus a tender way with a melody
that will draw you right in. His sidemen support him ably,
making this a most rewarding recording that is best played
late at night.
According to the liner notes, Ashby dominated
this session, schooling the other musicians as he went
along. The others, no slouches themselves were happy
to learn from the master. This sense of dominance and
deference pervades the music. Although perfect in some
respects, rarely does the rhythm section push Ashby,
and thus rarely does he have to push back, and so the
music is missing that certain tension that is needed
to make great music. Or, I should say, to make great
music even better, for the music here is lush and beautiful.
Ashby is an urbane saxophonist, often identified by
his long tenure with Duke Ellington. Even when he plays
a gritty blues, what shines through is his gentility.
It's as if he's not walking through the grit, but hovering
above it, taking it in, but only that. Hicks, on the
other hand, is not an urbane player. Ashby deals with
that by encouraging Hicks to simplify his playing. This
works nicely: Hicks puts less in his accompaniment than
is usually there, which adds to the music's simple elegance.
Then, when he solos, he brings out more of his ideas,
while still keeping it simple. As for Betts, I think
of him as the epitome of studied elegance, so he fits
in just right. Hicks and Betts spend the first 2:30
of "Lotus Blossom" playing a duet that's so
gorgeous I resented the intrusion of Ashby's tenor even
though he created barely a ripple in the mood when he
came in. Cobb's playing might lean more to the bebop
ideal than Ashby might like, but that gives the music
a little bit of a needed edge. So, a pretty album of
beautifully rendered tunes, with little in the way of
an edge, but that's likely to be appreciated by its